WASHINGTON, Dec. 23 -- (UPI FOCUS) Security forces around the world went on high alert Thursday as fears grew that the last Christmas of the 20th century might usher in a plague of millennium terrorist attacks.
The most dramatic development came in Spain, where security authorities foiled what appeared to be an ETA Basque separatist plot that could have killed or wounded hundreds of people in Madrid right before Christmas.
Civil guards carrying out a routine security check on passing traffic Monday near the city of Calatayud, 125 miles northeast of Madrid, discovered a van packed with explosives. They arrested the driver.
A detailed search of the area uncovered a second van two days later. It was also filled with explosives. Each vehicle comprised a one-ton car bomb,timed to go off simultaneously in different parts of Madrid during the height of the pre-Christmas shopping rush.
Spanish Interior Minister Jaime Mayor Oreja said the two vans were $?'a caravan of death heading for Madrid.'
Spanish newspapers identified the first van's driver as Jose Maria Nova Arroniz, a known political activist for the Basque separatist ETA movement, which ended a 14-month truce last month. ETA has waged a 30- year terrorist war seeking full independence for the Basque region in Spain's northwest. In that time, 800 people have died.
If the plot had succeeded, it would probably have been by far the bloodiest incident in all of ETA's terrorist campaigns.
But the Spanish bomb plot was only one terror attack among many that security forces around the world have uncovered and foiled.
Last week, U.S. border security officials at Port Angeles, Wash. arrested an Algerian man who was trying to smuggle a car filled with explosive materials into the United States.
Ahmed Ressam, 32, was indicted Tuesday by a federal grand jury in Seattle on charges of transporting explosives, possessing unregistered firearms and smuggling nitroglycerin. Some published reports stated he was suspected of plotting to blow up the Space Needle in Seattle, which will be the site for some millennium celebrations.
Court papers allege that Ressam had links to the Group Islamic Armee. The GIA, as it is known, is a violent Algerian fundamentalist organization that has waged a civil war against the Algerian government in which at least 50,000 people are believed to have died.
Said Atmani, another Algerian and an associate of Ressam, is still at large. He is believed to have links to suspected Algerian terrorists.
On Sunday, police in Vermont held a second Algerian man whom they also suspect of plotting a terrorist attack. Boubabide Chamchi, was arrested Sunday at the Beecher Falls, Vt. border crossing with the United States. A Montreal woman, Lucia Garofalo, was arrested with him.
In court documents, U.S. prosecutors claimed they had linked Garofalo's cell phone and her car to Brahim Mahdi of the Algerian Islamic League. They said this information had been provided to them from U.S. intelligence officials. The woman suspect had previously successfully crossed the border into the United States earlier in December with another Algerian national. On that occasion, she told border authorities that her destination was the city of Boston, where more millennium festivities are planned.
Publicly, U.S. authorities have taken pains not to connect either the Washington state or Vermont suspects with Afghanistan-based Osama bin Laden, whom the United States accuses of being the terrorist mastermind behind the August 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in east Africa.
But privately, senior U.S. intelligence officials make no bones about their belief that both men will prove to be linked to bin Laden. They note that Ressam in particular spent time in France three years ago, and that he would have had ample opportunity to meet with bin Laden operatives then.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government stepped up its own Christmas-New Year security precautions.
The State Department issued the latest in a series of warnings late Tuesday. It said:$?'The U.S. government believes that terrorists may be planning to
conduct attacks including official and non-official Americans, in and around the New Year period with particular emphasis on locations where large groups of people may congregate for millennial or religious festivities.$?'
State Department spokesman James Foley told reporters,$?'Panic is not in our vocabulary. (But) we have information that leads us to conclude that terrorists may be planning attacks around the world.'
Wrapped gifts were banned at U.S. airports Wednesday.
Michael Goldfarb, former chief of staff for the Federal Aviation Authority, told CNN that U.S. airport security would be stepped up to the level it was at during the 1991 Gulf war.
$?'Baggage will be screened. Some people will be profiled and pulled aside,' he said.
In New York, 7,000 police were assigned to mingle with revelers in Times Square and bombs would sniff for explosives in sewers and other underground installations.
The FBI in a recent report on millennial threats warned that religious and political fanatics within the United States might try and make their own crazed visions of an end-of-the-world apocalypse come to pass. It predicted$?'an uprising in violent activities among certain domestic groups related to the millennium.'
It warned that there was$?'a moderate possibility of small factions of right wing groups (taking action) in an overtly violent manner in order to initiate the apocalypse.'
The FBI further warned Thursday that a wave of parcel bombs might be sent to targets in the Untied States after being mailed from Germany.
$?'The U.S. government received unsubstantiated information that individuals may be planning to send bombs in small parcels to addresses in the United States. The information received indicates that the parcels would be sent from Frankfurt, Germany,' the FBI said in a statement.
Federal agents also moved fast on Wednesday to arrest Renato DeSousa Flor of Newark, N.J. on a charge of sending an e-mail message threatening to leave a van filled with explosives in a tunnel that passes under the Hudson River into New York City.
In Israel 3,000 police were deployed in the tiny Old City of Jerusalem to guard against possible terrorist attacks by Islamic militants or apocalyptic Christian cults. The FBI has warned that pilgrims visiting the Holy Land would include$?'apocalyptic cults on a mission to hasten the arrival of the Messiah.'
In Britain, Home Secretary Jack Straw announced all police leave had been canceled over the Christmas and New Year holidays. British Army units were put on 10-minute notice to move and emergency patrol boats would be deployed on the River Thames through the heart of London, where 2 million people are expected for the celebrations.
There were widespread hopes that the spate of preventive detentions and arrests of terror suspects would derail and deter more attacks. But U.S. counter-terrorism expert Neil Livingstone said this optimism was probably misplaced.
He told the Boston Globe newspaper he believed between 10 to 15 terrorist attacks could still be successfully carried out during the New Year celebrations because$?'terrorists know that by marking the millennium with whatever they do, they will be immortalized.'